New Year's resolutions for a new century - and beyond

How much do we care about the future? With our lists of New Year's resolutions in hand, the question may seem out of order. Of course we care! After all, we're busy shaping next year's plans and reforming bad habits. We've promised to get more exercise, read more books, and be kinder to the neighbor's cat.

But what about the long-term future - beyond next year's purchases, beyond the turn-of-the-century hoopla, even beyond the 21st century? Are the things we're doing today really building a better tomorrow? Do we care as much for our children's future as our ancestors did?

On the face of it, the answer might seem to be, ``Yes.'' Look, for instance, at how avidly we study the future. We're awash with prophecy - everything from next week's market forecasts to the analyses of social trends for 2050. Some of them are as detailed as tomorrow's weather forecast. And some are as speculative as a science-fiction tale.

Somewhere in between these extremes falls the November-December issue of The Futurist magazine. Its year-end report tosses some fascinating nuggets up onto the intellectual beach:

Lighter-than-air craft (like balloons and blimps) will make a comeback, for use in disaster relief in inaccessible areas.

Skyscrapers up to 1,000 stories are now feasible.

Air travel, spurred on by 1,000-passenger planes and hypersonic aircraft, will double by the early years of the next century.

Health-conscious eaters will double the size of the seafood industry in 10 years.

Fast-food burgers may soon be packaged in biodegradable plastics made of cornstarch.

The list goes on. But folded into it are three items that should make us think harder about how we think about the future.

First, longevity is steadily increasing. By the year 2000, there will be 100,000 Americans aged 100 or older - many in perfectly good health.

Second, birthrates remain low. By the 2030s, all the population growth in the US will come from immigration.

And third, the proportion of single people is rising, as the nation becomes increasingly composed of unmarried adults.

These aren't new trends. What's new is the recognition that they may help shape our attitudes toward the future. The editors of The Futurist put it in a nutshell: ``Without children or grandchildren,'' they write, ``older single people may take little interest in the long-term future.''

That, of course, is a pretty broad brush with which to tar an entire cohort of the population. Fortunately, there are plenty of exceptions - older single people who take a keen interest in the future well-being of society.

But the point raises a useful warning. Built right into our present-day fascination with the future, it seems, are the seeds of long-term indifference. And that, I suspect, is a new trend.

Past generations, after all, had a different sense of involvement with the future. In America's earlier years, raising children was a center-stage activity. Some of the motives seem crass today: the desire for more helpers around the farm, more offspring to make ``good'' marriages with notable families, more security in one's old age, more sons to carry on one's name and fame. But there were noble motives as well: the desire to express love and affection, to perpetuate knowledge and understanding, to stabilize and expand the nation, to help the upward course of humanity.

To those ends houses were built, communities established, schools formed. The future was not something to be self-consciously studied: It was something to live with daily. It was a natural topic of concern. It was as close as your own children.

What American society is now testing - apparently for the first time - is the extent to which a commitment to the future can flourish in the absence of children. Not, of course, that there are no children. But already the proportions are beginning to shift. Already there are just enough citizens without children to make the funding of schools a severe challenge. Already people live in houses built to last only a few years. And already the communities they live in are suffering from the increased mobility of a citizenry that doesn't need to stay put and raise the next generation.

The message from all this? It takes the form of a couple of New Year's resolutions - for single and for married people, with or without children:

Resolved: to expand thought beyond the moment, escape more energetically from the subtle trap of indifference, and give some extra attention to the long-term future.

Resolved: to prove that a maturing society, just as well as a youthful one, can dedicate itself vigorously to the coming century.

A Monday column

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